mySociety is a not-for-profit social enterprise that was one of the early pioneers of the Civic Tech movement. Its aim of building online technologies that “give people the power to get things changed” has helped spawn a thriving and engaged community of similar organisations, networks and people working to improve the citizen experience.
Which is why when mySociety’s Head of Research, Dr. Rebecca Rumbul, stood up at the organisation’s TICTeC conference at the OECD in Paris this week and asked - “Have we built our entire Civic Tech castle on quicksand?” - it's likely people will pay attention.
Rumbul gave a presentation entitled ‘The Third Age of Civic Tech’ (admitting that the title was produced under pressure and is a bit gimmicky), which focused on how as a movement Civic Tech has changed massively. How over the past 15 years, Civic Tech has gone from nothing to a really huge thing. And in parallel to that, the world too has changed drastically. Rumbul explained:
“I remember 2015, it was a whole different kettle of fish. The things we are talking about now, the things we are dealing with now, are things that weren’t even on the horizon for me back then. Because of the way things are changing, we really have to take stock I think.
“In terms of this being a Third Age of Civic Tech, fifteen years ago when this wasn't’ really a thing, we were just in this great innovation stage. Where the pioneers of Civic Tech just saw an issue and had mad coding skills. They thought ‘right, I can solve this and I can help other people as well’. Very soon other people noticed. There were problems in the world that could be solved by this - so they thought, let’s throw resources at it.
“I think over the past few years, we have reached this Third Age, where we are kind of mature. Where we are asking a lot more detailed questions about what we are doing. We are reevaluating what we are doing. Renovating. Reinventing. Reiterating. Trying to make sure that the tools, the platforms and the tech we are putting out there is doing what it says it’s doing and is doing it well. But that is a very self-reflection phase.”
Rumbul went on to explain that Civic Tech could carry on doing what it is doing and look very minutely at its progress, or it could do it in a more substantial way. She added that even though the sector is in a “maturing phase”, it still needs to evolve.
Rumbul compared the Third Age to a good trilogy, where those working in Civic Tech need to go back to the beginning to reassess what they thought they knew to be true. To look at the evidence through a new lens of what it knows now. She said:
“We can’t just stay as we are. Because that language is changing, because the way we work with people is changing, we have to move forward. In order to do that successfully, to do that in a meaningful way that’s worthwhile, we actually have to look back properly.
“We actually have to go right back to the beginning, right back to that first age - and test and question those assumptions that we’ve built everything else on. Have we built our entire Civic Tech Castle on quicksand? Is it enduring? Are those assumptions really what we should be basing ourselves on going forward?”
Rumbul said she she is “sure” that some of what Civic Tech has done has been built upon assumptions based on false information, which it thought to be accurate at the time. The sector needs to test those assumptions, ask hard questions and make difficult decisions about where it wants to be and how it wants to influence the way that tech helps people around the world.
So, what could be done differently? Rumbul didn’t use her time to give a comprehensive breakdown of what she believes needs to be changed - her presentation was more focused on challenging long held assumptions. That being said, she did give two examples of how the movement has shifted and what it could do more of.
The first of which being that Rumbul believes that Civic Tech needs to become more embedded within institutions, rather than an ‘opposition voice’ from the outside. She said that this is already happening, but that it could go further.
“We are working so much more now with institutions. Five or ten years ago Civic Tech was this little bubble, we were all mates, it was awesome, and we were all doing exciting stuff. We were very much outside institutions - shouting at them that they needed to do better, that they needed to listen to us. It’s all very well being a critical friend to those institutions, but meaningful change comes from within.
“The language has been changing over the last 18 months, the way we see ourselves, the way we work. We are realising, and institutions are realising, we are far better working together. Our values, we should totally still be pushing those forward - openness, transparency, accountability in public institutions. We totally need to keep on that.
“But we should be trying to make that change from a position of power, a position of partnership within institutions. Not standing on the outside. We really need to be far, far more embedded in the institutions we are working with.”
Part of this, Rumbul added, was showing these institutions that the technology that Civic Tech creates and promotes makes a real difference. And this means getting a better understanding, from within institutions, of how policy making is actually done.
Secondly, Rumbul said that some - not all, but some - are too preoccupied with the status quo and that this means, as a sector, opportunities are being missed. She explained:
“We’ve also noticed that some are taking the eye off the ball in some places. I’m not saying everyone is guilty of this. But it’s hard being a civic tech organisation. You’re under-resourced. You’ve not got much money. You spend loads of time chasing money. You spend loads of time just trying to maintain the things you already do well. It takes an awful lot of effort just to maintain platforms you already have.
“All the time you are chasing money, or just trying to maintain, we are not embracing some of the new stuff coming through. There might be tech that’s leaving us behind, because we are so busy trying to maintain this thing we are good at.
“I think the next phase might not even be civic tech. Maybe civic tech is dead. The trilogy is concluded. The next phase could be the first stage of something else, something really exciting that I don’t even know what it is yet. Because everything is changing around us, and we are hopefully responding to the change and changing with it, there’s all sorts of possibilities.”